Whither the written word?

Stephen Richer Law Student, University of Chicago
Font Size:

As is probably true of most aspiring writers, I’ve at times questioned the efficacy of the written word. “A lot’s being written; do people have time to read what I write? And if they read it, does it matter? Or do they just forget about it the next second?”

This question is especially important to think tanks—institutions that try to effect change largely through the written word. Producing articles, reports, and books is all very well, but ultimately, if the ideas conveyed produce no political or social ripples, then the mission of the think tank has gone unfulfilled. The “About” section of The American Enterprise Institute’s website, after all, says nothing about producing a critical amount of articles and books: “The Institute’s community of scholars is committed to expanding liberty, increasing individual opportunity, and strengthening free enterprise.”

Social effect is a difficult thing to measure of course—fundraising departments at think tanks have long struggled with the need to create metrics. But fortunately, I’m currently witness to an unintentional scientific experiment on the power of writing and think tanks.

For the past two years, think tanks and individuals from across the political spectrum have teamed up to address the alarming growth of federal criminal laws. The phenomenon has been dubbed “overcriminalization,” and it attacks Congress for infringing on the domain of state law and for adding so many criminal provisions that nearly anybody can be found a criminal—including one man, Krister Evertson who was sentenced to 13 months in a federal penitentiary for unwittingly failing to affix the proper label on a package of raw sodium. The interested think tanks feel they needed to solve the problem by alerting Congress and the Judiciary. Their medium? The written word.

Especially in the past two months, countless blog posts, articles, reports, and books have been written on the subject. A brief overview of the more substantive publications would include: In the Name of Justice, edited by Tim Lynch of Cato Institute; Three Felonies a Day by Harvey Silverglate; Federal Erosion of Business Civil Liberties by Washington Legal Foundation; One Nation Under Arrest, edited by Paul Rosenzweig and Brian Walsh of Heritage Foundation; and Without Intent by Tiffany Joslyn of NACDL and Brian Walsh.

Their effect? So far, so good. The subject has been of many feature articles, including a front page story in the New York Times. But instead of measuring writing by more writing, the overcriminalization movement should be judged by the fact Congress has held multiple hearings on the subject in the past year, and that it has won support from Reps. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and Louie Gohmert (R-Texas). Additionally, the Supreme Court is about to rule on three cases (Black v. United States; Weyhrauch v. United States; and Skilling v. United States) that address the Honest Services Statute—one the principal offenders of overcriminalization.

Does the seeming success of the overcriminalization ease my concerns on the effectiveness of writing? Hardly. If not even multiple books, coupled with the power of the marketing department of an organization like Heritage, could make a difference, then I’d put down my pen immediately. Still, it’s a start; and though perhaps representative of one extreme of the effective writing spectrum, it’s nice to know that some writing and some think tanks are making a difference.

Stephen Richer is the Director of Outreach at a Washington, D.C.-based legal think tank.